Prepare yourself for Tulsa Hip-Hop's living memorial to Black Wall Street with FILA's shimmering opening scene.
With its lead single “Shining” and its accompanying music videos, Fire in Little Africa (FILA) has set the tone for its highly-anticipated self-titled debut full-length album which releases this Friday, May 28th, on Motown Records. The song features four major Tulsa artists from the hip-hop collective: Steph Simon, Dialtone, Ayilla, and Jerica Wortham.
Produced by fellow Oklahoman and The Space Program headmaster Dr. View, the song makes use of a simple bass line and classy horn section. The sound is reminiscent of the 1920s, a vibe that is reinforced by the costuming in the music video which was directed by Boomintree Films and Avitiuh.
In the music video, released May 6, women in flapper dresses dance on stage while elegantly-suited men roll dice in a softly-lit bar that could easily be a speakeasy from that bygone era. Money flows freely in this video, a reference to the prevalent prosperity of Tulsa’s Black Greenwood District (also known as Black Wall Street). Even the typography is art deco, a stylistic move that reinforces the mood and the moment.
The choice of era is not coincidental. Fire in Little Africa is being released in the centennial year of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. In reviving the 1920s through costume and sound, the artists that make up FILA have brought us back to the year of the tragic event. It may seem odd that in a video commemorating a Massacre, joy is the predominant feeling, but the choice is wise.
Layering both past and present and mourning and celebration of black life makes this project forward-looking even as it directs its audience back to history. Even the location of recording reflects this melding of past and present.
The new 21-track album was recorded in the Greenwood Cultural Center and Skyline Mansion. The former promotes culture and community while preserving African-American heritage in Tulsa. The latter was formerly named the Brady Mansion for its original owner W. Tate Brady, a KKK member and Tulsa politician. Now, the Skyline Mansion has been reutilized and revitalized in a satisfying twist of fate.
Steph Simon wrote his part of the song in the Skyline Mansion, a fact he alludes to in “Shining”, saying, “I’m off in Tate Brady Kitchen/Writing up a million-dollar mission/Bout to turn this whole house into a business.”
The lyrics of “Shining” are packed with these sorts of references. The song ends with a boy’s voice yelling “they got Dicky Ro,” a direct allusion to Dick Rowland, the teenager whose arrest on unproven allegations of assault was the impetus of the Massacre.
In an episode of the Fire in Little Africa podcast, the artists featured on the track each shine a light on the intricacies of the lyrics and give a behind-the-scenes look at the recording process.
Steph Simon said he identifies with Dick Rowland: “I like to look at myself as the new catalyst for the uprising of the new Black Wall Street, which we think is us.”
The podcast is one way to dig deeper into FILA’s work. A lyric video, released May 21st can also help the listener read along and digest the many metaphors and allusions in the song.
These lyrics read like a history book, taking the listener on a journey through Tulsa’s dark Massacre to the present day where the artists of FILA are writing a new, brighter future for black Oklahomans.
It’s no surprise the music is as educational as it is good listening. FILA is a multimedia project that has set about not only to make incredible music, but also to create an accessible hip-hop-based curriculum for the Massacre. (Dr. View happens not only to be a producer, but a credentialed educator as well with a Phd in Higher Education Administration from the University of Oklahoma.)
If the album is a textbook, then “Shining” is the introductory chapter. It ends when Jerica, a Tulsa-based poet, delivers her lines on stage. Dressed in a black sparkling gown and adorned in jewels, she quite literally shines as she declares “We’re what it looks like when we got our own backs/We’re what it looks like when we build it back black/We’re what it looks like in a hundred years time/Got the audacity to walk up these ashes and shine.”
Jerica’s closing verse serves as a thesis to the whole project—an assertion the rest of the album promises to defend with songs as powerful and packed as this single.